Part One and Part Two of this report appeared in Issue 162 and Issue 163. Once again, I'll note my usual show report qualifiers: it was impossible to cover everything even in three days, and I missed getting some prices and other details. I never make definitive judgments about sound at shows. If I hear something I like, great; if not, I know it’s tough to get good, let alone optimal sound at these events.
I took a lot of photos, so this installment is going to be heavy on images. Here we go:
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about how high pricing could be discouraging new customers from coming into the high-end audio fold. I certainly encountered a lot of components and speakers with stratospheric price tags. That’s why I found the Devialet Dione soundbar to be one of the most attractive products at the show. It’s not cheap at $2,400, but it looked terrific and sounded excellent. Think soundbars aren’t “audiophile” products? If you’d heard the Dione, you’d think again. It features 17 drivers powered by a total of 950 watts RMS, offers Dolby Atmos, Bluetooth, HDMI 2.1, AirPlay, ARC and eARC, a number of stereo music and virtual surround movie modes, and even built-in room calibration. I noted a lot of younger people in the room. This is the kind of product the high-end needs to attract a new generation.
The fun factor was high in the Bethesda, Maryland retailer JS Audio room, as they had the Wilson Audio WAMM system – serial number 001! – playing, in their “Hi-Fi Time Warp: 1981” exhibit. Yep, somehow they’d manage to secure the original pair. Driven by D’Agostino and other electronics, the funky, clunky-looking assemblage of dynamic drivers, electrostatic panels, huge woofer towers and a dedicated Wilson Audio equalizer looked like a disparate collection of stuff that wouldn’t work together, but it made music: you could literally hear what designer David Wilson was striving for. Maybe not state of the art by today’s standards – heck, Wilson himself outdid it over the decades – but it was just plain fun to listen to, and a system I could live with forty-one years later.
Canadian retailer Wynn Audio had a dazzling display of high-end components from around the world, including the Karan Acoustics KA PH1 Reference phono stage ($27,000), LINEa preamplifier ($41,000) and POWERa monoblock amplifier ($106,000), a Kalista DreamPlay X transport ($68,800) and Métronome AQWO player/DAC $20,000), some extremely interesting grounding boxes and system-tuning devices from Entreq, the Thales Audio TTT Compact II turntable ($15,530) and Simplicity II tonearm ($9,450), X-Quisite Fire cartridge ($11,140), Vimberg Mino D loudspeakers ($58,000/pair), and much more. Many of the components were being shown for the first time in the US. This was one of my favorite rooms at AXPONA. The sound simply drew me in and I knew it was something special even as I entered the room, an impression that was only confirmed as I saw down in the sweet spot. Clear, detailed, inviting, spacious – this kind of sound is what high-end audio should be.
I was delighted to reconnect with my old friend Matthew Bond, founder of Tara Labs and now heading up Matthew Bond Audio, sharing a room with Dynaudio, Octave Audio electronics, and others. I experienced excellent “big room” sound – not every speaker works in a large space, but the Dynaudio Confidence 60 towers certainly did – this system had that “thing” going where the line between real and reproduced sound is blurred. The sound was warm but balanced, smooth but not blunted, and, well, seductive. Rooms like this, Wynn Audio, and others, made me wish I was a “civilian” and not a show reporter, so I could just luxuriate in some of the rooms rather than feeling compelled to cover as much ground as possible.
At the AGD Productions room I finally got to see and hear the talked-about GaNTube, which looks like a big power tube but in reality houses a gallium nitride MOSFET solid-state device. When I asked principal Alberto Guerra why it looked that way, he responded that he wanted to literally show people that his preamps and power amps were “all about innovation. I didn’t want to make a black box.” In addition to his electronics, the room featured Ocean Way Audio Eureka loudspeakers, which I’ve heard before and liked very much, and these speakers and the AGD electronics complement each other very well.
With their spherical design and organic-looking helix-shaped stands, Cabasse loudspeakers are attention-getters, (they also make conventional-looking speakers) and I’ve been hearing consistently good sound from them at shows, with AXPONA being no exception. Their larger models are exceptional, but I have to say, this time out I was equally impressed by their smaller speakers like the Pearl Akoya ($1,899 each), a coaxial design that delivered an impressive amount of sound with a rich tonal balance from a speaker less than nine inches in diameter.
Sometimes, $246,938 worth of gear really does sound fantastic, as evidenced in the Stillpoints room, which featured their new ESS Ultra turntable stand, Ultra 6 isolation feet, Viola Labs electronics, Rockport Technologies Atria II loudspeakers, a Wolf Audio Systems Alpha 3 SX music server and Bricasti M1 SE DAC, and cables and line conditioners by Madison Audio Labs, Telos, and Shunyata Research. I will just quote from my notes here: “Best sound so far. Sounded like music. The sax sounded real. Perfect balance, not harsh. Natural. Great.” Wolf Audio Systems had an impressive setup of their own in an exhibit that included their Alpha 3 SX music server ($9,295 – $12, 295 depending on configuration), TAD Evolution 2 speakers ($20,000/pair), T+A electronics, a VPI Avenger direct-drive turntable ($30,000) and Analog Relax EX1000 cartridge ($17,500) and other top-shelf gear.
I know I’m starting to sound like a gushing audio fanboy at this point, but I really did encounter some really enjoyable sounds at AXPONA. The Linkwitz LX521 loudspeakers feature an open-baffle design, where the midrange and tweeter drivers are mounted on an enclosure-less front baffle, in order to eliminate cabinet resonances and colorations. This design is used successfully by Nola Speakers and even as far back as the classic Dahlquist DQ-10, and for a reason – when done right, it works. The LX521 woofer fires into a uniquely-shaped enclosure. The dynamics of this speaker were utterly spectacular. I’ve heard the Hugh Masekela audiophile chestnut “Coal Train” more times than I want to recount – it’s one of those songs like Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Tin Pan Alley” that have been played so many times at shows that your ears glaze over whenever someone demos it – but it sounded astounding on this system, with a dynamic realism that was startling, even a little scary.
Disclaimer – I do consulting for Audio-Technica, and used to handle their consumer PR. That said, the sound in the Joseph Audio room was simply stunning, via the Joseph Audio Pearl Graphene speakers ($44,500/pair), Doshi Audio Evolution monoblock amplifiers and Doshi electronics, and a front end featuring a J. Sikora turntable and tonearm and an Audio-Technica AT-ART1000 cartridge (hence the disclaimer), along with a Studer tape deck with modified electronics. (I can't recall the music server.) When I first entered the room, they played a Dean Martin record that sounded really good – but then the guys thought the VTA was a little off. If you have a steady hand, the J. Sikora arm allows for adjusting VTA on the fly – a dream come true for those of us who are exacting about this sort of thing – and once the VTA was lowered, the bass filled out, as well as Martin’s voice, and the sound leapt into life. So lifelike that Dean Martin was practically putting his arm around us. I didn’t want to leave.
I asked Nick Doshi his thoughts on the vacuum-tube supply situation and he informed me that the company had made a big order at the beginning of the year and had a two-year supply, so they were in good shape. He felt that tube company Electro-Harmonix was being proactive in staying on top of the situation.
Harman International had a pair of rooms exhibiting Revel and JBL loudspeakers, and Mark Levinson and Arcam electronics. The Revel Performa F328Be ($8,800 each, so named because of its beryllium tweeter) sounded every bit the accurate, uncolored speakers I know them to be via Mark Levinson’s new “entry-level” 5000 Series electronics (No. 5105 turntable and cartridge, $7,700; No. 5101 streaming CD player, $6,050; No. 5205 preamp, $9,900, and No. 5302 dual-monaural power amp, $9,900). That said, I was really taken with JBL’s L52 Classic loudspeaker ($999/pair), which look like a miniature version of the company’s iconic L100 Classic. Sometimes I just have an irrational affinity for certain audio components for no real reason other than their looks, or even just the idea of them. The 2-way, 5.25-inch-woofer L52 sounded really good to me, powered by an Arcam integrated amp, even if scaled down in the size of its musical presentation – but sounding far bigger than its 13-inch-high size would indicate. And yep, it has the same sculptured-squares foam grille look as its big brother, in three different colors, but why would you want anything but orange?
Alta Audio had quite a presence, with their Adam loudspeaker ($17,000 – $18,000/pair depending on finish) making its debut at the show in four separate rooms. As you can imagine, the Adam was demonstrated using a variety of equipment from Krell, Infigo Audio, Rogers High Fidelity and Mojo Audio, and showed its sonic strengths in those varying circumstances, which provided a unique opportunity to “triangulate” on its sound. The Adam employs Alta’s XTL Extended Transmission Line cabinet-tuning and a ribbon tweeter, and it sounds far “bigger” than its driver size and relatively modest dimensions would have you believe at first look, with excellent presence, dynamics, and tonal balance. I’ve always been a fan of ribbon tweeters and the Adam reminded me why, yet again.
For whatever reason, I’d missed the chance to listen to Göbel loudspeakers, except all-too-briefly, at every show I’d attended – until now. Bending Wave USA distributes Göbel (speakers and cables) in the US and is a dealer for CH Precision (electronics), WADAX (digital audio components), and Esoteric (digital source components and electronics), all of which were on exhibit. The striking Göbel Divin Marquis loudspeakers ($90,000/pair) were complemented by the equally visually stunning Wadax Atlantis Reference server ($76,500 as configured) and Atlantis Reference DAC ($145,000), and a CH Precision L10 preamp ($76,000) and M10 mono amplifiers ($104,000/pair). Where had I been all this time? The speakers could rock out David Bowie or convey the subtlety and nuance of a piano with equal clarity, detail, nuance and spaciousness. I certainly will not be missing the Bending Wave rooms at future shows.
Audio Industry veteran Bruce Ball (how did us young guys become veterans?) announced the formation of a new distribution company, A/V Luxury Group International. He and co-founder Thomas Kiss will be handling Brodmann Acoustics (speakers), Margules Audio (electronics, speakers and turntables), Raidho Acoustics (speakers), RSX Technologies (cables), and Scansonic HD (speakers). A wide variety of products were on exhibit, and I was particularly taken by the room featuring the Margules electronics, who have been in business since 1937 and built the first radio station in Mexico. A solo violin recording proved so captivating that a woman, attending an audio show for the first time, excitedly said to me, “that’s a solo violin? It sounds so full and real!” She had no idea that music or audio equipment could sound like that, and was wowed. In fact, a number of attendees clearly were newcomers, not long-time audiophiles, which was really heartening.
Fidelis imports and distributes products from an exceptionally broad roster of manufacturers (too many to list – check the website!), and many were exhibiting at AXPONA, including Audio Analogue, Aurender, AVID Hi-Fi, Harbeth Audio, Heretic Loudspeakers, Lab12, and Neat Acoustics. I enjoyed the sound from the latter’s Majistra speaker, a modestly-sized 2-way with a ribbon tweeter (there I again; I just like ’em!) that seemed particularly well-matched to the size of the room it was in. It was clear and smooth with, not surprisingly perhaps, great upper-midrange and highs. And, my eyebrows, and ears, were raised at the sight of the Heretic A612 loudspeaker, based on an old Altec design. Soon to be released, the Canadian-built A612 has a coaxial driver in a large, low-sitting cabinet, and offers a high 97 dB efficiency. It sounded coherent, dynamic, and I spent far too little time with these, something I hope to remedy as soon as possible.
By this time, I only had about a half-hour left, and was in near-panic mode at the thought of what I was going to miss…Martin-Logan, Mbl, Vinnie Rossi, Audio Note, Pass Labs, Bel Canto, Elac, Malbork, Hegel, Parasound, Scaena…agghh!
By sheer serendipity, though, I closed the show on a high note, in the AudioThesis room. I listened to a pair of absolutely gorgeous Rosso Fiorentino Pienza 2 stand-mounted speakers ($4,900/pair; stands, $1,300/pair) powered by a Norma SC-2B preamp ($8,000) with R2R DAC, ($2,700) and PA-160MR mono amps ($25,000/pair) with a Lumin P1 network player ($10,000) as the source, and AudioQuest cabling and power conditioning. The system also had Caprice Audio’s CA Core system-noise-reduction device installed. It’s a noise-floor controller that plugs into up to six components, in order to improve ground plane behavior during music playback.
As soon as I sat down I was transfixed by the music. Sweet, tonally rich, clear, inviting…I did not want to leave, especially after a mind-blowing song came on, "II (Suspended Variations)” by the Tomasz Stanko Quartet. I forgot where I was, and for a few transcendental moments, who I was. And that, my friends, is what this whole exciting, fun, crazy, obsessive, sometimes maddening, sometimes cosmic, audio thing is all about.
Header image: audiophiles are a dedicated bunch. Spotted in one of the Alta Audio rooms.
All images courtesy of the author.